Volunteering with the NGO Photographers Alliance and Sustainable Roots in Ecuador
„A bucket of water needs every drop to be full. Your drop may be tremendously tiny, but if you are not there, the bucket is not full.“
These words by Toni Walters perfectly describe, why volunteering is important even though nowadays it is hip and trendy. If done for the right reasons, that is.
I am a big fan of volunteering and spend as many of my holidays volunteering in different projects as possible. This time, I had the opportunity to join a different experience of the same. I signed up for a week of volunteering at Sustainable Roots in Ecuador in a mentorship program of the NGO Photographers Alliance. You spend the week in a volunteering project, helping and taking pictures getting workshops and 1:1 tips by a professional photographer. The project can then use your best shots for fundraising and also a part of the program fees are used for that project as well as to save children around the world from preventable blindness.
Sounds to good to be true? All I can say, this was an amazing experience and a win-win situation for everybody. I got to up my skills and knowledge in photography, spent a week with amazing people in a superb project and just had the best of times.
What does Sustainable roots do? The project is the brainchild of founder Toni Walters, who came to Cosanga, Ecuador in 2004 to study caterpillars. A few years later, Sustainable Roots was officially launched and she stayed permanently in Cosanga.
The organization does everything to help the local community. They provide free education for all ages (english, arts, leisure etc.), organic gardening and reforestation projects and they organize monthly Mingas. Mingas are community work days where the whole town works together to improve the village. While we were there, they had a Minga to paint the newly built stairs in the village and to decorate it with a richly planted terrace system on both sides. The whole town was working hard, schlepping stones and plants, painting, digging, planting. And the result is stunning.
Cosanga is a small village in the Napo valley near Quito. The community is unlike any other community I have experienced so far. Everybody was extremely welcoming, warm and charming and they had a lot of patience with non-spanish speakers. And the kids were just amazingly cute, all of them. They were super interested in knowing our names and seeing our pictures and especially to get a hold on our cameras and phones to go take pictures themselves. And like the rest of Ecuador, the community was extremely affectionate and heartily and I could not help but fall in love with all of them.
Sustainable Roots can only work because of the help of many volunteers, short term or long term. Volunteers experience everything first-hand. They teach english at the organization and the local school, they help in the garden project as well as with the reforestation of the cloud forest. You hardly get a more hands-on volunteering experience than this.
The other benefits of spending time in Cosanga: Food is extremely yummy and you get to experience Ecuadorian specialties like Cevichocho or Empandas verde - and all that on a shoestring. Also, you get to be outdoors a lot and indulge in being in a cloud/rainforest area with the most incredible diversity of green you can think of. Imagine the joys of running around in rain boots almost every day, jumping from puddle to puddle.
And did I mention the kids of Cosanga?
Are you intrigued and want to book your stay with Sustainable Roots in Cosanga? Check out the link in the TRAVEL TIPS section for more details. I promise, you won’t regret going there.
How to travel a little bit different than other people
Tell me how you travel and I tell you who you are…
There are 8 billion people in the world and almost as many possibilities to travel. Personally, I don’t like to do and see what hundreds of other people already have seen. Therefore, I choose to travel a little bit different. Let me tell you about the different means of travelling I use:
Easily my most favorite means of traveling. You get to see aspects of the country you travel to that you wouldn’t see while traveling with mass tourism. There are many different kinds of volunteering for all kinds of budgets. Some projects will not charge you to volunteer, but most projects need to, just to cover the basic costs like food and lodging. And because it is very trendy now, some projects use the opportunity to even make a decent amount of many. So research well!
Volunteering can be more rewarding than spending 2 weeks at the beach. At least for me. And in some projects, you can even spend the volunteering time at the beach (check out the „volunteering in costa rica“ post). To know what kind of volunteering you would want to do narrows down the possible projects: wildlife conservation, nature conservation, building fountains/schools etc., teaching overseas, wwoofing etc. If you need addresses, send me a message, I’ll be happy to help.
Yes, that word is not a real word, I just made that up. It sums up pretty good how I research what to see in a country I visit. Open Google, insert the country/city you are traveling to plus "what to see“ and hit enter. You will easily get a few hundred pages. Now jump to page 50 or even higher and look at the results there. These will be your destinations. And I promise you, they will not be highly touristic, but totally worth seeing.
Of course, in historic cities, there are a few landmarks from the top 3 pages I want to see as well, but the rest of the holidays, I degoogle.
Also one of my favourite ways of traveling. If you are open minded and have no problem with not having a fixed program while traveling, this is something for you.
Book your flight/train and maybe a hotel for the first night and that’s it. the rest you will plan along the way. Just see where the country takes you. If you are one minded and up for it, you will get to know many people, locals or other tourists and they will give you many ideas or even join you.
I recently discovered this. There is an agency called bbacksoon. Basically, you give them a budget, a timing and your no goes for traveling and they do the rest. You will not know what is planned until the night before you travel. That works locally in Switzerland as well as overseas. Surely there are similar agencies in other countries. I just travelled a few days in Ecuador with them and it was amazing (read more about Ecuador soon on my blog or check out travelflavour on instagram for some recent pics).
Travel couch surfing
If you are young or young at heart and don’t need your comfy mattress every night, you might give couch surfing a try. Every country in this world has Hosts, offering their couch or a bed in a spare room to guests, for free. You get to stay a few nights with a local and if he/she is up to it, you even get to spend some time with them, getting to know the local culture even better. Or if you don’t have the time to travel, you can offer your couch or spare bedroom and have couch surfers from everywhere staying with you.
Have you ever tried one of those means of traveling? What are your experiences, would you do it again? And if not, why not?
Volunteering in marine conservation in Costa Rica
Have you ever helped bringing baby turtles to the world?
I have! Hundreds of them. And it was one of the most rewarding experiences in my life.
Almost 10 years ago, I wanted to do something meaningful with my vacation days. At that time, volunteering and voluntourism was nowhere near where it is today. Nowadays, volunteering is trendy and everybody does it, even though often for the wrong reasons.
10 years ago, I’ve spent 2 weeks in a very remote area in Costa Rica, in a campsite at the beach for the sole purpose to help protect the many turtles nesting at those beaches. This experience never left my mind, even when volunteering in other projects, Costa Rica was always a very fond memory. So, last year I just had to go back there and do it all over again. Different people, different turtles - but nonetheless rewarding and meaningful.
Why? Well for one, it is a unique experience to witness these giant sea turtles (leatherback turtles are around 2m long) nest on the beach or seeing baby turtles (about 7cm long) hatch and do the run for the ocean. But also, doing 4h walks in the sand at night without any lights is more exiting than you would imagine. And spending 2 weeks at the beach, on a little remote half island with only around 40 locals and no electricity except solar power, water from water tanks and no cell phone reception or wifi is just the best thing to relax and recharge your batteries.
But let’s begin with some facts. Why is it even necessary to have these projects?
Sea turtles are one of the most ancient species on earth, and all the 7 known living species are nowadays endangered. Sea turtles come out of the water to lay their eggs at the beach, usually during night time, because bright lights disturb them. They lay around 70-140 eggs, depending on the species of turtles. After around 60 days, the baby turtles hatch and start their very long run for life. They have to get to the water without being eaten by crabs or birds, then they have to swim quite some time to get to areas where they can rest, hide under seaweed and basically just have the time to grow up. This can take up to 10 years or more and there are many dangers, like sharks, ocean pollution or fishing nets that can kill turtles. These years are called „the lost years“ among scientists, as not many evidence of turtle movements are available for this time.
Ten to fifty years after they hatched, they reach sexual maturity and start mating and reproducing. The female turtles come back to the beaches where they were born to lay theri eggs - and the circle of life starts all over again. But besides the many natural threats like birds, sharks or crabs (that may even dig into the sand to eat the baby turtles still in their eggs) as well as coastal development (e.g.erosion), there are so many manmade threats. Global warming is one of those, but there are more. Turtles can get entangled in fishing nets (legal and illegal ones) and drown, they get sick due to polluted oceans, they may die because they eat plastic floating in the ocean or they simply get killed by humans who poach them for the shell to make jewelry for tourists, to get their meat or the eggs.
Eating turtle eggs has a long cultural tradition in Costa Rica, so it is no wonder there are many poachers who make a living hunting for eggs at night. This would not generally be a giant problem, if the turtle population would be high enough. But sea turtles unfortunately are critically endangered and need all our help to stay in this world (since it was us who put them in that situation in the first place).
Both times, I stayed for two weeks at this awesome program called „La Tortuga Feliz“ (The happy turtle). It was founded by late Paul Lepoutre, a dutch guy who more or less built the whole camp himself. An amazing and very inspiring person
So what do volunteers do in this program?
One task is to patrol the beach at night, together with a local guide. During the 4h shift, volunteers cover a distance of 10km while looking for nesting turtles. If you find a nest or a turtle digging the nest, the volunteers dig out all eggs, collect them and bring them back to the hatchery where all details (amount of eggs, date, time etc.) are written down before the eggs will be reburied in the sand in a designated area in the hatchery. Or you are staying in the hatchery at night or daytime to protect the eggs from poachers (who might dig out eggs put until 3-4 days after nesting) or crabs and check the nests for hatchlings. If you have hatchlings, the measurement begins. They hatchlings are being counted, weighed and measured and then released at the beach to start their run for the ocean.
There is also the task of beach cleaning and recycling. Volunteers grab some trash bags and start collecting all trash found at the beach. You would be astounded to know what you can find there. Besides the usual plastic bottles, bottle caps and the very dangerous plastic straws, you also find lots of medicine glass bottles, brooms, puppets and what not. This trash is very dangerous. Birds may pick that up because it is shiny or it can land in the oceans where it is eaten by the animals there. Plastic will never dissolve and it will kill ocean life. Turtles for example normally eat jellyfish. Plastic bags floating in the ocean look exactly like jellyfish to them. Because of the little hooks on their tongues, turtles can’t let go of plastic bags once they started eating them. Even though they realize it is not food, they have no other option but to swallow it completely. Keep that in mind the next time you buy something wrapped in plastic…
The day after a nest has hatched and the baby turtles have made their way to the ocean, it is time for the excavation of the nest. The camps biologist digs up the nest to see if there are some live baby turtles left who did not make it out yet because they were a little slower than the others and to check if all eggs have hatched. Usually, there are some undeveloped eggs, some eggs where the turtles died inside due to bacteria or fungus next to all the empty shells of the hatched eggs. Everything is counted and exactly written down. One night, we even found a live stage 3-4 (almost fully developed but not able to hatch) turtle in one of those eggs, and it was an albino turtle. Check the images to see how that looks like. It was only barely alive and had no chance of making it in this world. That was heartbreaking, even more than to find dead turtles in their eggs who were not fully developed. After everything is noted, all these eggs and shells are buried deeply at the beach, under some wood and covered with sand, in the hope that the dogs will not dig them out again. When there were many hatched nests the day before, the volunteers get to help with excavations.
Besides the daily patrols and hatchery shifts or the beach cleaning you have plenty of time to relax and recharge. During the day, you can go swimming, lay in the hammocks, play cards, read or engage in conversations with the locals who work for the project. At weekends there usually are excursions by boat to the near Pacuare Reserve where you can spot birds, monkeys, snakes, frogs or sloths.
All the local guides who work for the project used to be poachers before that. Now they help to save the turtles. And throughout the years, many other projects like this started along the beaches of Costa Rica, the whole caribbean and the pacific coasts of the americas. During those 10 years between my two stays, the turtle population improved and some species made it from the critically endangered to the endangered list. So you see, volunteer work helps but it takes a long time and the turtles still need all our help to get off all of those endangered lists for good.
How can we help from here? You can either book your stay at La Tortuga Felix now(or some other turtle project from LAST/Widecast for example) or start doing what you can from home to help save our oceans. One big help is to strictly recycle, to reduce or even better refuse to use plastic. You don’t need plastic straws, to-go cups or plastic bags from the mall. Just bring your own reusable cup/mug to get to-go coffee, bring your own reusable bag for groceries shopping and if you cannot exist without straws, buy one made from stainless steel and carry it in your handbag. And of course, try to reduce your trash generally as much as possible up until you reach a zero waste lifestyle.
In the food section, you can make the effort to check where your fish products are from and how they are produced. If you don’t want to live without fish, insist on only buying MSC labelled fish that comes from sustainable fishing. Also, check the WWF labels and endangered species list to check, which fish you should not eat at all.
If you have read all this and made it up to here, don’t be shy, leave a comment and let me know who your are. And of course: thank you for helping to save our oceans and all life within.
I am a swiss photographer (www.fmphotography.ch),
a travel, wildlife, volunteer and outdoors addict who cares about zero waste, the environment and simply our planet.